Realist Activity Theory for Digital Library Evaluation: Conceptual Framework and Case Study
A critical yet largely unexamined facet of digital library design anduse is how library content is assembled and vetted, which in turn hasprofound implications for ongoing digital library usefulness and usability.This article presents a social realist evaluation framework for anactivity theoretic case study of the Flora of North America digitallibrary. Social realist evaluation is a relatively new evaluationparadigm, positing that outcomes follow from mechanisms acting incontingently configured contexts. Because this study focuses on thedigital library content vetting process, a significant part of thepresent analysis concerns the publication subsystem of the Flora ofNorth America digital library – Collaborative Publishing Services –and how problems related to its design and use facilitates our abilityto explain the Flora of North America not only as a functioning digitallibrary project, but as a contradiction-driven organizational form inexpansive development. Activity theory is a philosophical and cross-disciplinaryframework for studying different forms of human practices in a multi-level,stratified manner, developmentally in time and through space. This intensivecase study of the Flora of North America digital library illustrates thatwhile social realism, itself content-neutral mechanics of explanation,provides a real foundation for activity theoretic analyses of workand technology, activity theory supplies a conceptually and substantivelyrich vocabulary for explanatory reasoning about technologically mediatedsocial practices, such as digital library assemblage and use.